Trojans hopeful for big improvement

LOS ANGELES -- It's safe to assume that head coach Kevin O’Neill would just as soon forget the 2011-2012 USC men’s basketball season altogether. Hit hard by injuries, the Trojans were flat-out difficult to watch at times as they struggled in just about every phase of the game, ultimately finishing with just six wins and a school-record 26 losses, including just one victory in Pac-12 play.

In looking at the upcoming season then, the first bit of good news would appear to be that the only way for O’Neill’s squad to go is up.

And while the Trojans were picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 preseason poll, indications point toward a much improved team in 2012-2013. To bring an up-tempo and much more physical brand of play to the fold that simply wasn't possible a year ago with such a depleted roster, but the Trojans are a collection of unfamiliar faces that O’Neill believes could exceed all expectations.

“Overall, I couldn’t be more impressed with our group so far,” O’Neill said. “We’ll see what happens going forward, but I like what I’ve seen out of them in terms of maturity, and I like what I’ve seen out of them in terms of them being a work team. And those are the things that are going to be important for us.”

But perhaps the biggest individual reason for O’Neill’s optimism is the player that he’ll having running the show at point guard, Jio Fontan.

Maurice Jones -- last season's starting point man -- transferred to Iowa State, but the Trojans undoubtedly get better at the position with the return of Fontan, who missed last season after suffering a torn ACL. A true court general who averaged 10.5 points and 3.9 assists per game two years ago, the senior leader can do it all -- shoot, distribute the ball and play lights-out defense.

“I feel like we have the best point guard in the league -- I would say that anytime, anywhere -- in Jio,” O’Neill said.

And while Fontan appears to be the one certainty, the rest of the starting lineup is anyone’s guess, but the Trojans do have a few major contributors back who figure to play a crucial role.

Those begin with Byron Wesley, a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard who was thrust into the spotlight as a freshman and played over 34 minutes a game. He brings an invaluable element of hustle to the team, along with strong defensive skills and an ability to contribute points when called upon.

7-foot center Dewayne Dedmon is a highly touted but still raw big man with potential through the roof, and just how far he’s developed as a player this past offseason will be pivotal in determining if he can make a major impact.

Finally, there’s forward Aaron Fuller. Battling through a shoulder injury before undergoing surgery 18 games into last season's schedule, he was the Trojans’ second-leading scorer while also providing a strong presence inside, averaging a team-best 5.9 rebounds per game.

After that trio, O’Neill figures to get his primary production out of an interesting assortment of newcomers coming primarily in the form of transfers who all arrive with valuable Division I experience.

Forward Ari Stewart (Wake Forest) is a fantastic 6-7 athletic talent who made a name for himself in practices while redshirting last season. Stewart’s teammate at Wake Forest, J.T. Terrell, figures to compete for a starting role at guard after averaging 11.1 points per game as a freshman for the Demon Deacons and 24.4 points per game on the junior college level last season. Both Stewart and Terrell are also standout shooters from behind the arc, giving the Trojans a pair of three-point threats that they desperately could have used a year ago.

6-6 forward Eric Wise (UC Irvine) dropped 35-plus pounds over the course of the last year, and he isn’t afraid to mix it up down low, averaging 16.3 points and 8.1 points for the Anteaters in 2010-2011. Renaldo Woolridge (Tennessee) gives the Trojans a 6-9 body at forward with tremendous athleticism and defensive skills. Lastly, there is Omar Oraby (Rice), a 7-2 center who could end up contributing in a huge way, especially as a shot-blocker. Oraby found out this week that he has been ruled eligible to play immediately by the NCAA and could be in the starting lineup for the season opener.

Not to be left out is one of the surprises of the team, Chass Bryan. A 5-9 freshman walk-on from Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian, he appears to have won the backup point guard job after impressing O’Neill in preseason workouts.

With the added depth and talent, in addition to the increase in sheer size and height, this year’s version of Trojans’ basketball appears capable of competing with anybody on paper. But whether or not the team finds success depends on the ability of this unique blend of players to gel together to play team basketball and form a cohesive unit, something that there has already been hints of in practice.

“All we’ve talked about is [that] the only stat that counts is W’s and L’s,” O’Neill said. “And we’re melding a bunch of guys together, but so far – from what I’ve seen in practices – our guys share the ball, they play hard, they like playing with each other [and] they have good chemistry already."

But with early nonconference matchups against the likes of Long Beach State, Illinois and San Diego State, the Trojans will be thrown into the fire and tested right off the bat.

And it all tips off Friday, as USC hosts Coppin State at 8 p.m. at the Galen Center.